Their need in the Indian priority is muted, the citizen has lost respect for his forces. They wear civilian mindsets in uniform. All’s not well with governance of our armed forces
Bikram Vohra | February 23, 2010
The first military court martial I ever heard of was in a film called J’Accuse, in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French army has been accused of spying and is found guilty. In a gut wrenching ceremony of dishonor he is stripped of his ranks, his sword is taken out of its scabbard and broken and he is marched out under guard as a civilian to spend his life in jail. He is proven innocent later and it is a true story.
That distilled and brutal cinematic dismissal stays with you. Forever. The military has its profoundly cruel way of dealing with those who fail to live up to the creed of being an officer and a gentleman.
It was in my teens when I heard of an in camera court of inquiry being held against the then Major General SHFJ Manekshaw instigated by Lt General BM Kaul for conduct unbecoming or some such thing when Manekshaw was commandant of the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington in the Nilgiris. It was all very hush hush and diabolical but it generated shock waves of great magnitude for years, so rare were such probes in the first three decades of the post colonial army. The inquiry’s ripple effects impacted on several middle rank officers yanked out and dispatched to New Delhi’s South Block to provide witness against the general. And though it failed spectacularly to rise to the burden of proof there was a reckoning and several good officers were minced in the bargain. Sam rose to the rank of Field Marshal and Kaul faded away after the 1962 China debacle.
They say when elephants fight the grass gets trampled. That has now become a fact as the Indian General, per se, becomes less military in his mindset and more civilian, a condition I will elaborate upon down the road.
I mention the Kaul-Manekshaw issue because it was so rare to even take that first step towards a court martial in those days. And, when acts of indiscretion began to occur in the upper echelons, ranging from stealing the affections of a brother officer’s wife, taking kickbacks from civilian suppliers, selling military secrets to other nations’ military attaches, or, as in a specific instance, sexually abusing a batman, the armed forces did try to keep a lid on it and take action swiftly and with minimum fuss. The reason for containing the damage is logical. The morale of the troops and their officers up the hierarchy has to be maintained. It is paramount and cannot be checkmated by ambition.
The current embarrassment over the probable indictment of four generals (Lt-Gen Avadesh Prakash, Lt-Gen P K Rath, Lt-Gen Ramesh Halgali, Maj-Gen P C Sen) for hatching a little scheme to grant the rights of a 71-acre tea estate next to Sukna military station to a favoured real estate buddy are tawdry and do not dignify the ranks on their shoulders. The interpretations given to the scandal are heating up the internet as dozens of generals, in service and retired (as well as lesser mortals) exchange their inside stories of what is really happening, the most dramatic being the hostility between General Deepak Kapoor and Lt. Gen VK Singh who is the new chief designate. Ta da, the culprits come under Singh’s command and one of them, Lt Gen Prakash is the military secretary and close to General Kapoor. An awkward impasse if ever there was one. If it was not for the daggers drawn relationship between the present chief and Singh the matter would have been handled with far more discretion. In truth, the incumbent and the man he hands over the baton to in March have both possibly done the image of the services a ‘disservice’. It is all fine to underscore the self righteous holier than thou attitude of serving up these officers for dinner but the piety comes at a great price.
If they did not have their own vendetta the public spectacle could have been avoided.
Ratting on your superior, trying to embarrass a peer, using political skullduggery to get up the ladder, building your career on the bones of your predecessor, these were just not done. That whole concept of the espirit de corps which marks the armed forces frowned upon it.
Yet, things began to unravel in the eighties.
In recent years there have been cases of mutiny, murders of a superior officer, protests and strikes, all alien to the uniform’s code but symptomatic of a stress disorder. The ‘fauji’ does not fit into the national scheme of things. He is isolated by that drop in his relevance for nearly two generations.
I don’t know whether the general-officers in the Sukna scandal are guilty or merely trapped between two enemies and I would not second guess the Judge Advocate General.
Of course, if the media hadn’t got wind of this story seeing as how a land scam of this limited magnitude is mere tiddlywinks when compared to the frequent multi-crore scandals of our bureaucratic and political leaders where corruption is an art form, the issue, as I said, would have been dealt with expeditiously. The horror is that these are army officers. They must rise above. It is this sense of surprise that surprises me. Rise above what? Why should you be so shocked? The texture of the armed forces has changed and so have the social dynamics. Hop back to my comment about civilian mindsets in uniform. Now, let’s get down to business. Why expect a general to be any more circumspect than a managing director of a corporation who steals the cookie jar, or the bureaucratic mandarins who build huge homes and blatantly take bribes even as they pontificate to the great unwashed.
Let me play the devil’s advocate for these guys who have been labeled guilty even before trial, robbed of their fundamental right to innocence till proven otherwise, silenced from speaking by the military ethic and damned by the media because it is a cracker of a story. That malaise I spoke about manifests itself in many not-so-wondrous ways.
The Indian armed forces have not fought a war in 40 years. Not one of these officers or men has seen action except for the Kargil skirmishes and the occasional exchange of fire on the border. Therefore, their need in the Indian priority list is muted and the citizen per se has lost respect for his forces. Gods and soldiers all adore, when in trouble nevermore. This is a major element in the mix.
Not even 10 percent of officers in the forces send their progeny to continue the time honoured tradition. There is no allure. Today, there is a shortage of middle level officers and the youth haven’t the bottle to take the rough and tough of military life and the discipline demanded. The sense of neglect by the public manifests itself in a dilution of military values in the barracks. Never have so many officers opted to quit half way through their careers as they do now.
At one time a General officer was a unique individual. Now, there are so many that familiarity has bred contempt. These officers spend their final years kowtowing to captains of industry in the hope of getting some post-retirement job, often so pathetic an exercise that one cringes to see ex-three star officers holding the briefcase of some wet-behind-the-ears scion of an industrial empire.
Within the middle ranks there is much dismay. Equal seniority in the IAS and the police gives those careers a 10 to 15 year lead in promotions. This causes great heartburn in the armed forces where promotions are bottlenecked. Young kids in the police wear star ranks as compared to the army, navy and air force.
Political jockeying and piggybacking on parochial and state sentiments has been encouraged and those with enough ‘contacts’ spend their last years trying to inveigle postings as governors or getting some plum public sector job. Commanding their corps or army is incidental. They are too busy networking. There was a time not so long ago when lobbyists, suppliers and contractors would not have had access to an army commander. Now, they wine and dine them and then hire them, two brigadiers, three colonels and a partridge in a pear tree.
The spectre of dropping out in one night from commanding the lives of 120,000 men, flags, stars, honour guards and the awesome trappings of office to nothing, rides high on the shoulders, as intimidating as Poe’s Raven and the accent rapidly shifts to self-serving interests. The sudden loss of prestige and the fear of civvy street catalyses need into avarice. It is not an excuse for doing the wrong thing but much the same as the rest of the country. Ask ourselves a hardcore honest question. Why is the wearing of a military uniform any more a commitment to moral values than the khadi outfits of our leaders, the ‘suits’ of our bureaucrats or the sartorial branded self indulgence of our CEOs? Same country, same people, same difference. n
[The author is Editorial Advisor to Khaleej Times, Dubai. He comes from a family where all four brothers were commissioned into the army and became Generals in the same corps. No family in the world has this distinction.]
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